5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
So Jesus rarely responds to the stated question. He often takes that question and looks at the asker’s heart question. Here for instance, the disciples don’t necessarily want faith. They were probably actually asking any of the following questions:
Lord, how can we see more miracles in our lives? (Matt 9:29, Mark 10:52)
How can we please God more? (Heb 11:6)
How can we live more like you want us to live? (Mark 4:40, Matt 17:20)
As is typical with Jesus, His answer is at first confusing, especially if you’re not looking at the underlying questions the disciples are asking. But also typically Jesus, His answer is truly brilliant and answers more than just the first question. There has been a lot written on this particular passage, but I think most of it misses the main point: it’s not about faith. You only need a mustard seed of that.
Hang in there with me as we read the next part:
7 “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”- Luke 17:7-10
No, Jesus didn’t just change the topic of conversation from faith to obedience and service… He is actually responding to every one of the questions the disciples may be asking. Did you know faith is a natural response to obedience? What if the most direct way for the disciples to increase their faith (v5) was to have the attitude Jesus was describing later on?
When I was in college, I was a Resident Assistant. During the spring break, I stayed in the halls and looked after them while everyone else was on break, and they gave me a key that opened most of the doors in my complex. Now, that was a lot of doors, and I happened to lose the key. The office had called me up and told me that I had until Friday at 4 pm to bring back the key or they were going to charge it to my student account.
I was in my last semester, and while I had the money in my account, I was planning a wedding and preparing to go on the mission field after I graduated – the last thing I needed was another bill. To top it off, the entire semester God had been pushing me to give extravagantly to others; the homeless, other college students, other people going on missions, the church… if you could name it God had probably prompted me to give to them and I had obeyed every leading. And every time He would prompt me, He would also say that He was in control of my finances. That season in my life wasn’t necessarily unusual, but its effect on my prayer life was.
I can remember my prayers from that Friday. That afternoon, I locked my door and started praying in a way that was quite unusual for me. “God, you said my finances were in your control” and “I thought you were going to take care of situations like this” – I was actually angry with Him and felt betrayed by Him. I had so much faith in God coming through in times of economic crisis that I was seriously bothered when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen.
What would my prayers have looked like if I hadn’t obeyed the other promptings He gave me? I know exactly what they would have looked like… No matter the words I used, deep in my heart I would have approached the situation resigned to my fate and knowing that it was probably punishment for the earlier times when God asked me to obey in my finances and I didn’t.
It’s just like a little kid who wants to go to the park but you tell them they need to clean their room first. If they haven’t cleaned their room, they’ll still ask you to go to the park, but the asking is half-hearted and just hopeful. However, the asking naturally changes when they’ve already obeyed; now they expect to go to the park and there is a persistence to their asking. The only thing that changed was the level of obedience shown.
Well, what happened to my situation with the key? I was praying and still quite mad at God when I happened to fall asleep. While I was sleeping, I dreamt that the key I was looking for had been stuck in a particular place in wood framework in my couch. I hadn’t seen it because it hadn’t fallen to the ground and you couldn’t see it just by taking the cushions out. As soon as I woke up, I tipped the couch over on its side and heard the key go ‘clunk’, falling from the exact place I had seen it in my dream. Embarrassed at my earlier forceful prayers, I quickly said thanks and apologized, then ran to the Res Life office to give back the key. I left there at 3:45 and none of the ladies in the office knew of the drama that had just happened in my dorm room.
Though I didn’t learn it at the time, it was through reflecting on this experience that made me realize just how interconnected faith and obedience were. Your obedience changes your prayers; when you do what He asks of you it’s the most natural thing in the world to know He’s going to look out for you. The opposite is also true; when you know you haven’t obeyed, it’s the most natural thing in the world to doubt He’s going to look after you. And while you can’t change the amount of faith you start out with, you can certainly change the amount of obedience you show.